EEB Frontiers students graduate to U-M's EEB Ph.D. program
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Bick (2010 Frontiers cohort) is investigating questions pertaining to differential survival in a Pacific Island endemic species, terrestrial snails, with her advisor, Professor Diarmaid Ó Foighil. “In recent decades, the rich endemic tree snail fauna of the Society Islands (French Polynesia) has been almost completely extirpated by an introduced predator,” Bick said. “However, two snail species have differentially survived in the valleys of Tahiti and the goal of my thesis is to determine what factor(s) underlay this differential survival.
“I chose UM’s EEB program because of its outstanding depth in both ecology and evolutionary biology,” she said. “The faculty here is engaged in diverse and exciting research topics ranging from the origins of species to global climate change. Students get to be part of this exciting research. Fortunately, I found an advisor who worked on a research topic that I am highly interested in. The faculty and administration here are also very committed to fostering a supportive environment for its students.
“My undergraduate degrees were not in ecology or evolutionary biology and I was severely limited in the academic background that it took to succeed in an EEB graduate program. In the past two years as a Frontiers master’s student, I have been doing a lot of catching up. I have been exposed to a wide range of research topics as well as approaches in ecology and evolutionary biology. This exposure has enabled me to ‘fine tune’ my research interests and provide me with a foundation and competitive advantage to continue on to a nationally prominent Ph.D. program. This program also prepared me to navigate the mental and academic challenges of being a graduate student. Whenever I needed advice, there was always tremendous support from the EEB faculty and from diversity programs throughout the university.”
"Cindy has excelled in our Frontiers Master's Program and has proven to be a highly determined and intrepid researcher," said Ó Foighil. "I'm really pleased that she has picked us over Yale for her Ph.D. Given her interests in conservation biology, Cindy is well positioned to make a big impact (socially as well as scientifically) as a Polynesian woman scientist working in Oceania. We need to train talented young scientists just like her if we are to have any realistic chance of preserving representative fractions of these fragile island biotas."
Bick, who joins the Ph.D. program in the fall of 2012, was nominated for and received a Rackham Merit Fellowship, one of the largest and most prestigious awards for incoming students. The RMF recognizes entering students who have outstanding academic qualifications, show exceptional potential for scholarly success in their graduate program, and demonstrate promise for contributing to wider academic, professional, or civic communities. Farinas and Yitbarek are also Rackham Merits Fellows.
Regarding his decision to join EEB’s doctoral program, Farinas (2009 Frontiers cohort) said, “For me, it was a natural choice as I realized I had grown into a community here. There are so many great ecologists and the caliber of the work they do is amazing. Every day is a challenge. I have advanced greatly in knowledge and understanding since being here. Not only that, but I think the various other intellectual and social engagements that come along with this environment have caused me to grow quite a lot as a person.
“I feel the master's program was a solid preparation. Most of the time I felt like I was being treated like a Ph.D. student anyway. The expectations were quite high, but the mentorship was always there as a foundation.”
Regarding the experience of moving from Frontiers to the Ph.D. program, he said, “In all honesty, I don't feel like much has changed. Well, there's the additional stress of prelims of course, but the basic course is the same. I am trying to become the best and most well-rounded ecologist I can be. What I really look forward to, though, is more time to focus on deeper questions and building research that can answer them.”
Farinas will continue to study changing climate effects on plant communities. This summer he will focus more on questions of changes in nitrogen dynamics and the relationship to patterns of diversity. His advisor is Professor Deborah Goldberg.
Ong (2009 Frontiers cohort) chose to join EEB’s doctoral program because she really enjoyed working with her advisor, Vandermeer, and thinks that UM's theoretical ecology program and proximity to Detroit, which is currently the center of urban agricultural movements, was ideal.
“I found out that I was interested more in theoretical ecology and agroecology than conservation biology by going through the Frontiers program and being exposed to all sorts of research conducted at U-M,” Ong said. “Frontiers is a great program for deciding where to go next. It really helped me explore a variety of options, which helped me to decide what was best for me.”
Ong is currently investigating spatially-explicit ecological dynamics in urban gardens as part of Project Grow. Specifically, she is investigating the complex relationships between pea plants and other leguminous crops, plant pests (aphids) and the natural enemies of the pests (ladybird beetles and fungi). Ong and her collaborators will apply field, theoretical, and lab work towards understanding the patterns and mechanisms of pest and natural enemy dispersal through urban areas.
Yitbarek (2008 Frontiers cohort) focuses on complexity, space, games, emergence, and assembly with his advisor, Vandermeer, and believes that there was no other place in the world than to join UM’s EEB department. “My choice for joining the Ph.D. program was relatively simple. I wanted to work with John Vandermeer,” Yitbarek said.
“Professor Vandermeer belongs to the last creed of world-class intellectuals and has made significant contributions to theoretical ecology as well as advanced this knowledge to the burgeoning field of agricultural ecology that sustains the livelihoods of millions of small farmers with the science of ecology.
“My training as a master student with John Vandermeer was aimed at helping me to discover things on my own, to challenge my own and others’ ideas, and to make mistakes, which in return gave me a much more profound understanding of the material at hand than any of the As I ever received in my life. In short, I became truly educated.”
As a Ph.D. student, Yitbarek is investigating the invasion dynamics of the little fire ant Wasmannia auropunctata, considered to be one of the world’s top 100 invasive pests. This species is not considered to be an invasive in its native range, but drastically reduces ant biodiversity outside of its native range. The question of why this is the case continues to be perplexing to many ecologists. By combining theoretical aspects of spatial competition, empirical analysis of competitive networks, and field observation in both Mexico and Puerto Rico, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of the invasion dynamics associated with W. auropunctata.
“Both Ong and Yitbarek have been great students, both during their master's career and now as Ph.D. students,” said Vandermeer. “The direction each of them has taken is a consequence of their experience as Frontier's students and I doubt they would have taken these tracks if it had not been for the opportunities offered them by the Frontier's program. In addition to the perspectives both bring to my lab with their distinct cultural backgrounds, they bring a diversity of intellectual engagement that has been exciting for everyone in the lab. This diversity of scholarly pursuit has been an incredibly important contribution of the Frontier's program to our department more generally.”
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